Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Digital Art, with Blood

Thanks for all the public and private response to my announcement of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, and especially to my buddy Mike Lynch, who mentioned this new blog on his more popular blog. Mike's a good man and, even rarer, someone who actually makes a living as a cartoonist. Those two qualities make him my hero.

I've realized I face two problems blogging about this book. One is punctuation: what to do with the question mark at the end of the title? As in that opening sentence above, typing a question mark followed by a comma makes my writerly eyes burn, but I can't think of a better way to handle it. Ordinarily, when you get to a question mark, a sentence is done. But not around here, my friend! We break all the rules!

Second problem: I'd love to write about what I'm doing but don't want to show too many examples yet. We've got a long time before the book comes out. Still, some readers like information about the cartooning process, so let me take a wordy stab at it today.

In our digital era, I'm a proud analog cartooning dinosaur. If ink and paper were good enough for Winsor McCay and Walt Kelly, they're good enough for me. I find drawing by hand much more satisfying and pleasant than sitting at a computer. However, I'm not a stubborn Luddite about it. When digital techniques make the job faster, easier and, most important, better, I'm happy to adopt them. Also, I think we've reached a point when even the most traditional cartoonist has to be adept with tools such as Photoshop. Editors and publishers don't want you to send them a piece of paper, they want a digital file ready to import into a layout. (I think single-panel magazine cartooning might still be an exception; Lynch would know.)

When I did Mom's Cancer, what got printed on the page was pretty much what I drew. I penciled, inked, and hand-lettered each page. I used Photoshop mostly for clean-up chores that once would have been done with rubber cement and white paint. As I described in a blog post back in March 2007, I did do some computer composing and editing on Mom's Cancer so that, for example, there is not really a single original drawing of the cover artwork, just pieces that were digitally assembled into the cover.

This time around, I've gone a bit more high-tech. Almost everything is still penciled (in light blue pencil), inked with India ink using brushes and nibs, then scanned into the computer. On Mom's Cancer, that might have been the end of it; on World of Tomorrow, it's just the beginning.

This time, I'm lettering with a computer font of my own printing. In fact, I made the font myself (using FontCreator 5.5 as recommended by my best-selling friend Jeff Kinney) by sampling letters from Mom's Cancer. An insane person armed with a magnifying glass could read my first book and find the very letters used in the second. I went digital for a few reasons: I've never been particularly happy with my lettering, considering it adequately workmanlike at best.
(I am also using some professional comic fonts in World of Tomorrow, but for very particular purposes.)

Another reason for using a font is that it makes editing infinitely easier. Moving, resizing, rewording, rewriting, adding or deleting text that's been done directly on the original artwork is a nightmare. When the text is digital and kept on a separate "layer" from the artwork, it's almost as simple as typing. (Explanation for non-Photoshoppers: the program lets you layer different image elements on top of each other without affecting layers underneath, like placing different pictures in a collage; then, if you need to change one piece, you can do so without affecting the other layers.) The challenge when drawing the art, then, is leaving enough space and flexibility to allow for the words plus whatever rejiggering might be needed later.

I'm much more comfortable with Photoshop now than when I did Mom's Cancer, and when it comes to deciding between "having a cool piece of original art when I'm done" versus "getting a better-looking page done as efficiently as possible" I choose the latter. More pages of this book are composed of separate elements that I draw by hand but assemble as electrons. For example, I just talked to the Abrams art director this morning about the World of Tomorrow's cover, and we're going to move something a half inch to the right. If that element had been part of the original background drawing that task would be very difficult, but because it's on its own layer I can do it in two minutes. I'm trying to think ahead and be smart about this stuff.

I was going to write about coloring, which is digital on both Mom's Cancer and World of Tomorrow and which I think I am also handling smarter this go-round, but will save that for another time--when I may also write about hiring my first assistants ever.

***

In "too much information" news, I nicked the dickens out of my nose while shaving this morning and am still bleeding like the Black Knight. "'Tis but a flesh wound!" I have no idea what the razor was doing on my nose. Evidently I shave like a drunk waving around a broken beer bottle in a bar fight. I am in fact at an age when hair has begun to sprout from ever newer and more exciting places, and some mornings are a Kafkaesque adventure in discovering what new Hobbity creature I've metamorphosized into overnight. But it's not growing from the tip of my nose. Yet.
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6 comments:

Mike said...

"I just talked to the Abrams art director this morning about the World of Tomorrow's cover, and we're going to move something a half inch to the right. If that element had been part of the original background drawing that task would be very difficult, but because it's on its own layer I can do it in two minutes."

I suspect that, as in writing on a word processor instead of a typewriter, the ability to make minor changes so effortlessly increases the likeliness of their being made at all -- in the olden days, there was an element of "ah, it's not worth retyping the whole thing ... " that would make you look at an infelicitous word and evaluate it, rather than simply swapping it out.

Artists are still in the developmental stages of this becoming a factor in their process, n'est-ce pas?

Cartoonist Who Writes said...

If you have a chance or the inclination, I'd like to hear more about the creation of your font. Was the learning curve daunting? When I was writing Spot, and re-writing Spot, I often thought about converting my handwriting into a font. But I had the idea that the strip's run would be over before I understood how to do it.

Brian Fies said...

Mike, you're absolutely right. Knowing that minor revisions are possible seems to make them irresistible to some people, and I find myself explaining that some things are easy to change and some aren't. In this case, we really need to make this half-inch move and I'm lucky it's on its own layer or I'd be doing it the hard way. On the other hand, you don't want a page to be nothing but pasted-together layers--it has to work as a coherent whole, not a Frankenstein's monster of parts--nor do you really want to give editors too much latitude to screw around. I have no problem saying something like, "I can do that, but it'll take two days. Are you sure we need to?"

A related problem/challenge is that comic art is a relatively new deal to the larger publishing world, where people don't always understand how it's made or what's possible. For example, on "Mom's Cancer" we had one copy editor who didn't like how I'd spaced all my punctuation (I tended to leave a lot of room between the final word and period, question mark, etc.). She didn't comprehend why that wasn't a simple fix. "Can't you just do a 'search and replace'?" Well, no, all those words were drawn on the originals. Even with a digital font it's still not simple, but it's easier.

Mark, I'll blog about that soon, it's more than I can handle in a comment. In brief, there was some learning curve and the program has more features than I'll ever use (or understand), but I figured it out in a couple of days. I really liked Spot the Frog and wish it'd taken off for you.

Brian Fies said...

By the way, Mark, I like your pseudonym, "Cartoonist Who Writes," since I think of myself--and occasionally refer to what I do--as a Writer Who Cartoons. If we ever met in person, the resulting matter-antimatter explosion would probably destroy the planet.

Cartoonist Who Writes said...

"For example, on "Mom's Cancer" we had one copy editor who didn't like how I'd spaced all my punctuation (I tended to leave a lot of room between the final word and period, question mark, etc.). She didn't comprehend why that wasn't a simple fix. "Can't you just do a 'search and replace'?" Well, no, all those words were drawn on the originals. Even with a digital font it's still not simple, but it's easier."

When it comes to punctuation, I think a cartoonist has lots of leeway, or should. Even if you could click a button and inch the periods around, why should you? It's your style. But as you said, for a lot of publishers comic art is like a zoo's first elephant, and they're discovering that elephants demand more creative room to be themselves.

Sandra said...

Interesting post, Brian. I find my lettering in my strip tends to be rather close together and letters often touch each other. (not a good thing) I will frequently "erase" a teeny bit of the line in photoshop if I notice it while I'm cleaning things up. A font would probably be faster but I can't bring myself to do it in my strip. But I can definitely see why it would be a big bonus in a book. I'm not sure I understand exactly what "search and replace" is . . . but it conjures up an image that shouts QUICK AND EASY to me. :)